Archive for the ‘society’ category

What’s at stake?

April 7, 2014

The term ‘stakeholder’ is one of those words that appears to have suddenly emerged as a key concept of higher education policy. It is not a term, so far as I can remember, that was ever used when I embarked upon my academic career. Now it is ubiquitous in university documentation.

So what does it actually mean? There word ‘stakeholder’ was originally a legal concept referring to a person or body that held money or property pending a determination of who was the rightful owner. It was common for stakeholders to be used in gambling transactions, but in other settings as well. From this original use came the more modern meaning of stakeholder as someone or some body with an interest in the success or otherwise of a person, organisation or business. In the business world it is usually a reference to someone who, while not necessarily being a shareholder or owner, has a legitimate interest in a firm’s success or could be affected by its failure: employees, customers, suppliers, creditors. There is also the concept of a ‘secondary stakeholder’, who is not affected as directly by a firm’s fortunes, but who nevertheless has an interest: the general public, trade unions, community groups, and so forth.

So who are the ‘stakeholders’ of a university? The obvious primary group of stakeholders are students, and of course also staff. The concept may be seen as more complex when it is extended to government, industry (local or otherwise), schools, public agencies. As public policy to an ever greater extent expects universities to engage stakeholders in planning and in strategic communication, it is important to assess how far this community of interested parties could extend, and what entitlements they have. Some studies have suggested that there is a particular triumvirate of stakeholders whose interests should to some extent be accommodated: parents, communities and employers. This, it is suggested, should lead universities to adopt the business tool of ‘business stakeholder analysis’:

‘BSA is a useful tool for learning how to think more expansively about stakeholders, and then actively to incorporate these newly identified stakeholders into the corporate decision-making process without sacrificing institutional values.’

Universities, like other organisations, need to be aware of those bodies and networks that can have an impact on their success. Unlike firms, universities are often seen as public bodies, and this creates not just a sense amongst various groups that they have an interest in the institution, it sometimes generates a sense of entitlement in relation to them. Governments express this through the conditions they attach to the distribution of public money to universities and through the monitoring of performance. But it is felt more widely also: a man once came up to me on the campus (having recognised who I was) and proceeded to deliver a set of instructions as to what I, in his view, was obliged to do. He ended his statement with: ‘I have paid for all this, I am entitled to have my views taken into account.’

And indeed, in many way he was so entitled. Universities should not be resistant to the stakeholder concept; it reinforces a sense of the university as a significant element of the wider community, even if the institution does not have to dance to everyone’s tune. Autonomy should not, in my view, mean disengagement or disinterest. In some ways indeed we are stakeholders for the wider community: we hold the valuable property of knowledge in the interests of the society which, ultimately, owns it.

How do we know what we know?

March 24, 2014

While drinking a cup of cappuccino in a very nice coffee shop recently, I overheard two students discussing research methods for their essays. Both of them believed that they had correctly identified the solution to a particular scientific – I think biomedical – problem, but neither was sure on what evidence they could base it. So one of them pulled out his mobile phone and tweeted the question. Within two minutes they apparently had received 38 responses, with 21 of these suggesting one particular source, 8 another, and the remaining 9 (according to one of the students) ‘just spouting rubbish’. So the 21 were deemed to have the winning formula, and I believe that this is what both submitted in their essays.

It was, I suppose, a form of crowdsourcing. And of course this doesn’t just get used as a research tool for students. Last week we read that online crowdsourcing was used to identify the likely flight direction of the missing Malaysian flight MH370. Or how about Californian Assemblyman Mike Gatto, who is using Twitter to help him draft legislation which he would like to see enacted? Others again have taken to crowdsourcing to predict stock market movements. A cancer research charity is using crowdsourcing to analyse medical data.

For those still struggling with the validity or otherwise of using Wikipedia as a research tool, the ever more informal and broad ranging methods of research made possible by the internet must seem a major challenge. In part this is because, increasingly, we are processing information supplied by large numbers of people about whose credentials we know, and seek to know, nothing at all; and yet we may trust what they advise us. This raises completely new notions about the validation of information and data.

In the past, when I was first doing research, our task was to acquire knowledge and based on that knowledge carry out analysis, each step of which we could document and justify. If those were our intellectual tools, how shall we respond to a new age in which we throw questions into cyberspace and wait for an answer, whose validity we cannot document beyond the volume of the response? Do we need to review the whole idea of what constitutes knowledge?

Naming rights

March 7, 2014

Many years ago, when I was an undergraduate student, I was enthusiastically elected by my fellow students to represent them at staff meetings of my Faculty. Well, I was elected. When I came to the first meeting, I found that all the academic staff present addressed each other by their surnames. In fact, it went further: staff always called students Mr or Miss (Ms hadn’t yet become popular; yes I am that old) Bloggs.

When I started as a lecturer in the same institution I initially continued the tradition (I was even known, at first, to lecture occasionally in a gown). But after a while I got tired of all that and started calling everyone – staff, students, anyone within earshot – by their first names. And that’s how I have kept it as I climbed up the academic ladder and, eventually, became a university president (or principal, here in Scotland). In DCU I used to tell colleagues that the only time I would tolerate being addressed as ‘President’ was if the person so addressing me intended to follow that with something entirely insulting.

But it is useful to remember that not everyone is comfortable with this. In an article on the website Inside Higher Education an Australian lecturer laments the growth of the now standard informality because, in her view, it undermines the lecturer’s authority and the desire to teach students in a professional manner.

So now, I am wondering whether her views are more typical of the profession than mine. It would be interesting to hear feedback from readers of this blog.

Can anyone still write?

February 10, 2014

A little while ago I received a letter from a manager in a large multinational company. He enclosed an extract from a report which had been written for him by one of his staff, whom he supposed – wrongly as it happens – to have been one of my students a few years ago. This extract ended as follows.

‘In regards to the incident, we mustn’t presume. I have put together some further thots in an appendice, and you can look at at your lesure. Their’s douts of what really hapened and who’s fault it is.’

My correspondent’s purpose was to suggest that I, or certainly the system of which I was a part, had failed to educate this man appropriately and to ensure that he had writing skills that made it safe for him to be released into the community. The implication was that this person’s ineptitude with the written word was representative of his generation, as my supposed inability to teach the relevant skills was representative of mine.

In fact the internet is full of alleged examples of bad student writing, and the suggestion that they cannot handle metaphors and similes in particular is a recurring theme – even if the rather amusing examples regularly given are almost certainly not genuine. The suggestion is often made that the school system has failed an entire generation of young people by neglecting to educate them in basic writing skills; and this seems to be a worldwide problem.

Of course some complaints are offered by pedants who find the idea of a living, changing language repulsive and who will go on endlessly about split infinitives and the like. But on the other hand, it is true that we can all receive letters, emails and reports that disclose an extraordinary lack of very basic skills of spelling, grammar and syntax. I cannot tell whether these educational failures that blighted the last generation have been addressed for the one that followed; but if not, then something will need to be done, and if universities cannot themselves fix the problem, they can make a noise about its significance.

Sorry, Darling

February 5, 2014

Yesterday I tried to arrange for a particular company to send me a skilled craftsperson to fix something in my house.  This process will not be cheap, by the way, but it has to be done. The company is happy to arrange this, but they won’t commit themselves to a time of day for this maestro to arrive on the premises. We had agreed the dates, but I couldn’t get a time out of them. It would be sometime, their nice switchboard person assured me, between 8 am and 6.30 pm. Definitely. Not a minute earlier. Though perhaps a few minutes later, let’s say 7 pm. But 8 am was just as likely.

I suggested gently that as I had a full-time job which was not totally undemanding, I couldn’t just hang around at home preparing for the triumphant entry of the craftsperson, no matter how talented or skilled. Sorry, I was told, ‘but that’s how we work’. So are they completely unable even to guess when it might be, or in what order the journeyman might conduct the business of the day? ‘Sorry, Darling, we don’t hand out that kind of information.’ What, that’s classified information, in case the KGB get hold of it? ‘It would be unfair to tell you, love, since we don’t do that for anyone else.’ Why don’t you do that for anyone else? ‘I’m afraid that’s how we work.’

I am increasingly intolerant of businesses that feel it unnecessary to accommodate the customer, assuming that someone will find it easy to be at home all day, or that if not they would take a day’s annual leave. I simply do not believe that it is impossible to narrow down a service visit to something less a than a whole day.

I shall not be doing business with this company again. Once this particular job is done I shall call them and tell them so. I cannot specify what time of day I’ll be making the call, but I presume someone will be waiting at the phone between 7 am and midnight for this purpose.

Time to worry about men?

February 4, 2014

UCAS, the UK’s agency for managing applications to higher education institutions, last week released the latest statistics on applications for the next academic year. One piece of information that rather stood out in the report was the following:

‘Over 87,000 more women than men have applied, a difference that has increased by 7,000 this year. Young women are a third more likely to apply to higher education than young men.’

This trend is not unique to Britain, nor is it absolutely new. Two years ago in Canada the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario noted:

‘University application rates of women increased from 41 per cent of the potential applicant pool in 1994 to 52 per cent in 2006, while application rates of men rose from 32 per cent to 39 per cent in the same time period.’

It has become increasingly clear that a gender gap is opening up in higher education, in western industrialised countries at least, which has seen women not just entering universities in greater numbers than men, but also out-performing them when there.

Of course we are witnessing this trend in a society that, for generations, has under-valued women’s work and has seen (and still sees) men occupying most leadership roles in business and in society more generally. Is this trend about to be reversed? Will men become the disadvantaged sex? And is this an issue about which educators should feel concern? Will this trend prompt more crime and deviance by young men who feel marginalised?

It is probably a good idea not to over-state the significance of this trend, but it may nevertheless be time to consider ways in which boys and young men can be more effectively motivated to see educational goals as important for their  social status and personal fulfilment. A good bit of work has been done on this; but the key to combating male educational under-achievement lies in the early years of education. This in turn is another bit of evidence pointing to the importance of good pre-school education, particularly for disadvantaged children.

After centuries of discrimination against women it may not feel compelling to worry about men. But it is important to do so nonetheless.

No sex for the President

January 24, 2014

With apologies for the salacious title of this post.

When you and I were students, and when we were staying in some student residence or other, some of us (if we’re old enough) may have been subject to a regulation that prohibited the overnight stay in our rooms of a guest of the opposite sex (our gay friends, curiously, were less restricted). Well, you probably thought that this kind of rule has long been abandoned or that it certainly has become unenforceable. Think again. And don’t think students. Think university presidents.

The new President of the University of Alabama in the United States, Dr Gwendolyn Boyd, has the use of a presidential residence that comes with the job. But her contract contains the following stipulation:

‘For so long as Dr. Boyd is president and a single person, she shall not be allowed to cohabitate in the president’s residence with any person with whom she has a romantic relation.’

Well no, there is no such word as ‘cohabitate’, but we’ll let that pass for a moment. What we see here is a rule prohibiting a woman president from having romantic liaisons at home. She may have all sorts of other visitors, including family, and if she acquires one, a husband; but not someone about whom she has pre-nuptial romantic feelings. Leaving aside the extraordinary assault on her human rights, how on earth can a university impose such conditions (notwithstanding her own apparent tolerance of them) in this day and age? And how can they possibly believe they are legally entitled to do this? And aren’t they at all worried that they will be mocked for this? Whatever next?

Can you speak without being prompted?

January 7, 2014

Apparently not everyone can, and that includes some who have made speaking their particular speciality. The somewhat annoying film director and producer Michael Bay recently agreed to provide a public endorsement of a new Samsung television. However, at the launch event the teleprompter failed, and so did Mr Bay, walking off the stage. Watch it here.

Genuine public speaking is becoming rare, but perhaps the time has come to reinvigorate it.

Happy Christmas!

December 24, 2013

May I wish all readers of this blog a happy, relaxed and satisfying Christmas. As I write this, storms are battering where I am staying for Christmas, in the Irish Midlands. I hope that this will pass (here and elsewhere) without causing excessive damage or distress. So may this holiday season be everything you wanted it to be. And many thanks for stopping by here, today and on other days.

Maybe it may also be of interest that, if you are celebrating Christmas, you are doing something that was illegal for a number of years in some countries. Christmas was banned by Cromwell’s government in 1647, and observing it (even privately) was prohibited until 1650. The American Puritans took a dim view of it also. As a holiday it only became popular after Prince Albert (after whom the building where I worked for some years in DCU was named) introduced his inherited German customs to England in the mid-19th century, and when US popular culture (from Coca Cola to Disney) introduced the ‘modern’ Santa Claus to the world (‘Santa’ being of course a re-branded Saint Nicholas of Myra).

A very happy Christmas to you all!

Separating values?

December 17, 2013

There are times when, I suspect, we all regret initiating some discussion or other which goes off in an unexpected direction and causes us grief. This, I imagine, is how Universities UK (of which all British universities are members) feel about the advice they recently offered on gender segregation at meetings on university premises. This was contained in a larger document which was about handling external speakers. The document contained a case study, based on a hypothetical event at which the speakers are debating different approaches to religion, where one of the speakers has ‘made clear that he wishes for the event to be segregated according to gender’. The Universities UK document then set out the legal and practical issues, focusing both on freedom of speech and religious rights, and concluded:

‘It should therefore be borne in mind – taking account of [statutory duties], as well as equality duties and Human Rights Act obligations – that in these circumstances, concerns to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those opposed to segregation should not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system. Ultimately, if imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event, or those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully.’

While it might be suggested that this conclusion was somewhat opaque, it appeared to offer the advice that, in such circumstances, providing for gender-segregated audiences might be within the law, or indeed might be required by law.

Most documents issued by university umbrella bodies do not attract much public attention, but this one was an exception. A firestorm broke out, with newspapers and other media severely criticising Universities UK, and with student protests outside their offices. There were also reports alleging that segregated meetings has taken place on university campuses. The British Prime Minister also weighed in and, according to a news agency report, indicated that arranging gender-segregated audiences was not acceptable in the UK. A similar view was expressed by the Labour Party’s Shadow Business Secretary.

In the face of this onslaught, Universities UK decided to withdraw its advice pending a review of the issue with the help of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and senior lawyers.

So what are we to make of all this? More particularly, how should universities handle the complexities of multi-cultural concerns? Gender equality is one of the most basic requirements of a modern liberal society; so can this be legitimately qualified if a particular religious group rejects it and insists on its right to treat men and women differently? Would we accept it if this religious group were a Christian church?

Not everyone has backed the criticism of the Universities UK document. Writing on the website Huffington Post, the journalist Alastair Sloan suggested:

‘It is not acceptable to demand that a group of consenting adults cannot organise themselves by gender, if they see fit. It is of no business to feminists to be threatening to break up Islamic meetings – unless they are happy to be labelled religious persecutors.’

It is of course clear that universities must be open to and welcome and support people from many different cultures and countries. So for example, universities need to get better at recognising that a bars-and-alcohol leisure culture will seem hostile to many coming here from overseas, and that alternatives should be available. But equally it seems right that universities should protect liberal values of equal rights and opportunities, and that compromises around these values are wrong. The idea of ‘separate but equal’, which in theory underpinned apartheid (in practice there was little equality), has been wholly rejected, and should not be allowed to make a come-back in the context of gender. In many ways, it is reassuring that this was the strong near-consensus reaction to the Universities UK document.

I have a lot of sympathy for Universities UK in all this, as their intention was simply to offer dispassionate legal advice; but sometimes the strict legal position is not helpful. This was one of those times.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 743 other followers